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Death toll from Chile wildfires rises to 64 as authorities probe possible arson

People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar in the Valparaiso region in Chile on Saturday. Photo by Ailen Diaz/EPA-EFE
People fight the fire in the Las Palmas area during the forest fires affecting Vina del Mar in the Valparaiso region in Chile on Saturday. Photo by Ailen Diaz/EPA-EFE

Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The death toll from recent wildfires in Chile rose to 64 people on Sunday as authorities established curfews and shelters to respond to the widening emergency.

"I have decided to decree two days of national mourning starting this Monday. It is Chile as a whole that suffers and mourns its dead," Chilean President Gabriel Boric said on social media.

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"To those who have lost a loved one and also to those who have lost their homes, their memories and their belongings, know that the government, the state and the solidarity of Chilean men and women is with you. We continue working."

A red alert was first declared in the Valparaíso region of Chile on Friday quickly followed by another set of fires in the Lago Peñuelas National Reserve. According to local news reports, more than 15,000 acres of land were burned by that night in simultaneous fires around the country.

Photographs shared online showed lines of cars ravaged by fire as people tried to leave, which some have compared to evacuations during last year's devastating fires in Lahaina in Maui, Hawaii.

Rodrigo Mundaca, the governor of the Valparaíso region, said Sunday that the fact the fires all started simultaneously raises concerns about whether they were started intentionally. He said the Corporación Nacional Forestal, a state-owned nonprofit for managing forest resources, informed officials that four fires were lit intentionally and quickly contained on Saturday night.

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"Evidently, there is intentionality here and therefore all the authorities are going to exercise the maximum rigor, the maximum rigor and all our possible security to find those responsible. Because the fires have turned into homicides," Mundaca said.

He said the deaths of the men, women and children "cannot go unpunished" and that officials would apply "the full rigor of the law."

"We are going to pursue them, and we are going to look for them, and we are going to imprison them, because human lives have been lost," Mundaca said. He also said that cultural heritage had been destroyed by the fires.

Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said in a statement Sunday that efforts on the ground have been concentrated on combating the forest fires.

"Right now, the priority is to protect lives and contain the fire in the riskiest areas," Tohá said.

Officials have responded to the fires by deploying 23 helicopters, 9 airplanes, and 17 fire brigades amounting to more than 1,311 personnel from different agencies in the Valparaíso region. A total of 15 shelters have been set up to support people affected in the Valparaíso Region.

The United Nations Development Fund in Chile was among agencies sharing support for the South American country as the devastation continues.

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"We express our solidarity towards the communities affected by the devastating fires that occurred during the last days in different sectors of the region," the agency said.

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